Gleaning Insights At The Onset Of Gargantuan Civic Engagement Projects: Advice From The Other Side

By Joe Blair

Based on project work conducted for Experience Design Lab 2, 2017 @ Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Profs. Jon Campbell & Ben Little, Project team: Raquel Meneses, Eliza McLellan & Joe Blair

Statue of Atlas, Già nella Collezione Farnese, Today at Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Myself and a group of peers were tasked recently with joining an existing team of city officials in crafting componentry of a massive civic engagement project. The goal was specific, while at the same time sprawling. The goal was to direct capital investment toward physical plant upgrades and renovations to existing facilities in all school districts in the city, equitably. Our collaborators (client) wanted to have the process of allocating the funds handled by the community and merely facilitated by the city. Our task was to (inside the course of four months) steep ourselves in the reports and politics and everything that had been done up to that point, formulate insights into how best to apply our design methodology to benefit the process, and then prototype/deliver a solution solving for those insights. Full disclosure: this is being written one third of the way through our four month process. To undertake this project was a tall order to be sure, especially in the civic space of this urban school set of districts, where large swaths of public entities are key stakeholders and have been embroiled in debates and feuds for years. What I intend to lay out here for you, fair reader, is how we three started to eat this whale, and what advice I wish I’d had from the outset. Hopefully you’ll find that what I outline here helpful if you too are endeavouring to embark on a seemingly “too-big-to-tackle” project working in urban areas.

A community engagement meeting where we brought (much appreciated) markers and craft paper with sticky-notes.

We began the endeavour with what we as a group of three graduate students referred to as “sponging.” Sponging was where we intended to absorb as much as we could about the project. We looked specifically at issues surrounding the communities we sought to serve. When working within a limited timeframe, as we were, expectations must be set and compromises must be made. However, at the outset it’s easy to sprawl out a little bit and try to just have fun with the materials. Striking a balance between these two forces is important. You want to have the freedom to explore materials in a larkish manner, but you need to be sure you’re holding yourselves accountable. Always come away from an experience with documentation.

Later we would zero in more to our eventual project scope, but the value of letting yourself have fun with this part of the process cannot be understated here. Even if the project seems like a chore, if you’re able to imbue vitality into the beginning, that energy will suffuse the following phases of work. Resulting in a better end product. People are more likely to have a richer experience working in an environment they’re comfortable affecting, and more likely to produce work that is dynamic and authentic. Even if a subject is mind bogglingly complicated, and there’s no way your team can “understand everything” by the end of that phase, simply becoming engrossed has the likely effect of building empathy with other stakeholders. These may be primary or secondary stakeholders, and may have been dealing with the issues you’re studying and solving for, for years themselves.

This all sounds well and good, but the truth is some subjects (especially those which are a part of government) are intrinsically and irreducibly complex, and there’s really no way that as a non-expert you can make correct or incorrect observations. Being open minded to the unknown, and unafraid of immersing yourself is best. Try and do this despite potential fears you may have; this will empower you to see things that even a specialist may not be sensitive to. Embrace your amature status, treat it as an asset rather than a liability. As you take in this glut of information, and time begins to dwindle, you and your team should be continuously discussing and parsing ideas and theories into groups and shuffling them around. Failing fast could be seen as one of your goals in this period, rather than something to avoid. So even if you fail to map every-part-of-every-sector-of-every-other-part of things (Phew!), you’ll both be seen by your collaborators to be making a sincere effort which makes for both an inspiring work atmosphere, as well as an atmosphere where you’re growing as a person and professional. This level of engagement will have beneficial side effects which cannot be captured in a bottle and represented here. Similar to cooking with good ingredients, being jovial and engaged in a positive way will produce better outcomes with fewer pains. However, as every situation, every person and every project is not the same, outcomes may vary. This methodology is not a panacea, nor is it a one-time fix-all for tough problems. If in your furious engagement you’re able to document enough of these epiphanies, you’ll be able to use this pixie dust to multiply the efficacy of your boilerplate research work.

Something else that we would offer as a piece of advice when engaging urban communities: Try and drop any preconceived notions you may have about the population you’re acting in service of. One way to “keep yourself honest” is to be sure and include others throughout your process. These others could be fellow team members, professional associates or stakeholders; talk with as diverse a group as you’re able to get an audience with. Avoid building yourself into an echo chamber. Working in solitude for prolonged periods is not advisable, or discussing project matters only with people who closely share your own world-view. Sometimes we can be biased or overlook something obvious because we’re too close to an issue. An idea may be baked into your brain in such a way that you need a fresh pair of eyes to contribute depth to a project, depth which because of their perspective adds vital dimension to insights which are gleaned at the end of this phase of work. And it bears mentioning that actually speaking with people in person is preferable to having a purely electronic relationship. Being in the same room when you do so will earn you double points on the design-methodology-O-meter.

Some doofus. (Me, with a stakeholders map.)

In conclusion, there’s no right way to enter into a large scale civic engagement project, but there sure are things you can avoid (Myopia, willful ignorance, apathy) and other things that I would steer you toward in your journey (Self examination, collaborative teamwork & grit.) I wish I were able to provide a checklist for those of you reading this for whom that would be more useful than this prose, but I’ve found an abundance of these lists, and while they may be useful for some it’s more crucial as a participant to engender in yourself a spirited enthusiasm for the problem at hand, for the collaborators and for the stakeholders. You must go beyond simply empathizing (Empathy counts as table stakes here) and become obsessed with the materials you have available to you; and even maybe some which are not available to you! Stoking yours and your team’s appetite for consuming whatever you can (Readings, in-situ observations, media, interviews) is going to maximize the return on your efforts in the beginning phases of a project like this. I hope these words are helpful and inspiring; the world needs considered methods for approaching civic issues, and nothing will get done if there’s noone there doing it. So get doing!

What we ended up with at the end of our first phase of work were six insights and five principles. They are as follow:


  • Feedback Loop
    Stakeholders need to know someone is listening. Reiterate, document and share what 
    is said and done in and outside of meetings. This will keep the dialogue open going forward.
  • Don’t Mic That!
    When one person stands up to ask a question and instead filibusters the meeting.
  • United
    One for all and all for one. We have the same goal- create the best possible environments 
    for our children to learn in. It’s not us vs. them it’s only us.
  • Respect For Time
    Recognize that there are many demands on people’s time, and their choosing to spend some
    of it with you should be respected and valued.
  • Stay Focused On Topic
    As time is valuable, remaining on task is important, though this should not stifle creative use
    of time. Keep on task, but allow some deviation.


  • Safe Place
    Scale and create diverse forms of engagement to make all participants feel comfortable and supported.
  • Face
    Ensure the resulting program’s face and voice is consistent, across all of their many communication 
    vehicles (Events, postings, meetings etc.) Provide a face-to create trust and reliability.
  • Build To Grow
    This program specifically targets physical infrastructure. Making stakeholders aware of this will mitigate 
    confusion during meetings and improve output quality. Building improvements will allow students to learn 
    and grow as whole people.
  • De-Slickify
    Inaccessible language makes the program’s report tough to approach for some. De-mystifying will lower 
    barriers to participation and promote a common terminology.
  • Memento
    Document a memory with participants. Allow them to feel a sense of belonging and contribution to the 
    decision making of the future.
  • Not Just A Workshop
    Integrated community decision making requires more than what a workshop format can provide on its own. 
    Communicate how one contribution fits into the bigger picture.